“Opening of the Eyes:” Tamar and Re-Cognition (Ideas #100)


Do clothes really make the man? If that means that you can tell who a person is by the clothes they wear, the story of Tamar and Yehudah (Bereshit Chap. 38) seems to point in a different direction. In fact, the Torah may actually advance the notion that clothes can be a significant stumbling block in truly identifying those around us.




In the case of Tamar, the theme of clothing takes on unusual import. Especially in the discussion of Tamar's meeting with Yehudah at Petach Einayim, the narrative takes great interest in her clothes. When the Torah goes into great detail, telling us that she took off one set of clothing for another and then tells us that she removed that clothing and put the first set back on, it invites us to consider the relationship between Tamar and her clothes more carefully.




Interestingly, both the clothes that are identified as “her widow's clothes” and the others that can be understood to be harlot's clothes[i]are, like a uniform, expressly meant to define her identity. In fact, however, both sets of clothing were essentially only costumes – i. e. clothing meant to portray a false identity. She is neither a prostitute nor a widow (in the sense that this does not become the permanent identity of a young childless woman even when her first and second husbands have died). It is perhaps for this reason that Tamar so easily changes one set of clothes for the other and then back again; she is well aware that her true essence lies beneath the clothing that she wears. In this way, Tamar shows us that since clothes can be taken on and off at will, they cannot truly define who we are.




In contrast, Yehudah seems to identify Tamar completely with that which she wears at any given time. His inability to properly identify her, however, goes beyond her clothing as well: Several commentators[ii] suggest that when Yehudah originally sends Tamar away he mistakenly holds her accountable for the death of his two older sons.  His initial misperception seems to be greatly amplified by the continuation of the narrative, wherein he takes Tamar to be a prostitute. At that point, his impressions of Tamar seem limited to the superficial, to what “meets the eye.”




Yehudah's inability to perceive is further emphasized after his encounter with Tamar. The story unfolds into one long string of events that could be described as a protracted game of hide-and-seek, where Yehudah sends his friend to look for someone who does not really exist (the prostitute) – only to be confronted by someone else (Tamar) who actually was the person for whom he was searching all along (the woman who will be the mother of his children and of the Davidic lineage). The point is driven home when Tamar tells him to “recognize” the identity of the items that she had received as surety.




The Torah tells us that he recognizes, but it does not give us the object of his recognition


(i. e. “Yehudah recognized and said”). Based on this textual anomaly, various midrashic interpretations suggest that he recognized more than the items that belonged to him. This act of recognition is in contrast to his previous lack of recognition in more ways than one: Not only does he now recognize that the woman that appeared to be (wore the clothes of) a prostitute was really Tamar, he also recognizes that Tamar was a spiritual giant (“tzadka mimeni”) and certainly could not have been at fault for the death of his two boys.[iii]




Earlier, when Yehudah did not recognize her “because she covered her face,” it is not only her face that Tamar covered from Yehudah, but her true essence as well. Had Yehudah been more familiar with whom Tamar really was when she was his daughter-in-law, it is unlikely that he would have sent her out after the death of his older sons in the first place. It would have been even less likely that he would have taken so little interest in her as not to see through her disguise later on. 




Once Yehudah is able to “recognize,” the Torah tells us that he came to know Tamar, significantly in a situation that is devoid of clothing.[iv] To follow the key verbs in the narrative, Yehudah first sees but doesn't know Tamar, then he searches but cannot find her, and finally he is led to recognize her, which leads him to ultimately know her and not just her appearance.




Tamar did not reveal her inner self to Yehudah when she was his daughter-in-law, because she must have understood it to be a private affair. If it is to be shared, it is to be shared primarily with G-d and secondarily with one's spouse and, to a lesser extent, one's children and students. The inability of a person to really comprehend another without the greatest attention and effort makes this comprehension something to encourage only from those with whom we seek an intimate relationship. In this regard, covering our bodies serves as a metaphor for the need to conceal our souls as well.




At this point, it seems almost impossible not to notice another allusion created by the place where Tamar met Yehudah. There could be no more apt description of what Tamar was trying to orchestrate than Petach Einayim, opening of the eyes.[v] In this case, it is Yehudah's eyes that she tries to open. At Petach Einayim, she initiates the process that opens his eyes to her essence as well as to the nature of human essence altogether.


[i]      In line with the approach of Rabbeinu Bachya.


[ii]     See, for example, Rashi 38:11, based on Bereishit Rabbah 85:5.


[iii]    The rabbis also notice that Yehudah's recognition of his belongings is couched in the same language that the brothers used in showing Yosef's bloodied clothing to their father, Ya'akov.  In contrast, when Yehudah had previously asked his father to “recognize,” it was still a superficial recognition that he was talking about – it was the recognition of Yosef via Yosef's clothing. For when Yehudah engineered the sale of Yosef, it was the bearer of Yosef’s clothes that he sought to sell – the bearer of the regal tunic made by, and now returned to, Ya'akov. It does not appear that there had been any effort on the part of Yehudah to understand Ya'akov's love for the Yosef who lay underneath the clothes – the one that would show so much character and sensitivity later in the story. Thus, it seems to be no coincidence that directly after that episode, we see Tamar teaching Yehudah that the identification of a person through their clothing is problematic.


[iv]    Whether the final words of verse 38:26 are telling us that Tamar and Yehudah continued to live conjugally or ceased to do so is actually a matter of great debate. In this debate, we prefer to follow the approach of the rabbis in tractate Sotah. (See also Torah Temimah note 34 who lends support to this reading.) Here too, it is likely that the rabbis intuited that this would have to be the correct understanding of the verse, completing the process of Yehudah's recognition of Tamar as we are suggesting. (See also Netziv for a third understanding of the verse.)


[v]     Petach Einayim is ostensibly merely the name of a place or a description of a place (i. e. meaning either crossroads or the entrance to two springs). The rabbis (Bereishit Rabbah 85:7), however, indicate their suspicion of such an approach by essentially asking, “How come we've never heard of such a place?” as it is not mentioned anywhere else in Tanakh.